ANNAPOLIS — For a youth on probation in Maryland, a minor fault could mean a trip back through the complex juvenile justice system, sometimes resulting in incarceration, and often causing major setbacks to the youth’s rehabilitation.
To keep children from being dragged back into court for non-serious issues, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is developing a tool that will help case managers make objective and appropriate decisions about the juveniles in their care, and also help combat racial bias in the system, said Eric Solomon, public information officer for the Department of Juvenile Services.
The department in October began training case managers, who are responsible for monitoring juveniles on probation, to use a system of “graduated responses” — a grid-based set of guidelines to help them decide step-by-step how to appropriately respond when juveniles violate the terms of their probation.
A probation violation could range from a serious offense to a minor infraction, like being late to a meeting with a supervisor, Solomon said.
“That will help that person avoid coming back to us, give them the appropriate sanction, and incentive to continue moving on the right path,” he said.
In the 2013 fiscal year, about 5 percent of all youths referred to the Department of Juvenile Services were caught on probation violations, according to the department’s data resource guide.
This may be a small percentage, but it represents about 1,400 kids, many of whom shouldn’t have been forced to reenter the system, Solomon said. He expects this number to have grown in 2014, although the data is not yet available.
“Now we’re trying to say, we don’t need to put 1,400 kids back here (in the juvenile justice system), maybe only 50 of those kids need to be here,” he said.
Due to inconsistencies in disciplining juveniles, some non-violent offenders were placed in higher-security facilities along with high-risk offenders, Solomon said.
“It goes both ways, there wasn’t a set criteria,” he said. “Case managers could be lenient, case managers could be really harsh. There wasn’t anything to make it the same.”
Putting juveniles who’ve committed varying levels of offenses in the same facility could be a dangerous combination, said Dana Shoenberg, deputy director for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focusing on juvenile justice reform.
“If you mix low-risk kids, or even moderate-risk kids, with high-risk kids, then you increase the likelihood that the low- and moderate-risk kids are going to reoffend,” she said. “They’re learning from other kids who may have a more significant offending background.”
Combating racial bias in the system is another element of the new program, Solomon said.
“This is one of the ways that we can work on racial bias because racial bias…it’s not because
individuals are racist, it’s because they’re not using objective tools to make their decisions,” he said. “…There’ll be less racial bias going on because everyone is using the same objective tool and won’t be making their own decisions.”
In Maryland, about 33 percent of the under-18 population is black, according to 2013 U.S.Census figures, while about 59 percent of incarcerated youths in the state are black, according to the state Department of Juvenile Services.
About 15 percent of the under-18 population in the U.S. is black, according to 2013 U.S.Census figures; 40 percent of juveniles incarcerated nationwide are black, according to 2011 figures from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“It is not a justice system because it is not just,” said Maryland Secretary of Juvenile Services Sam Abed at a juvenile-justice reform conference in Washington, D.C., in October. “If you’re black in this country, you’re not going to be treated as well as if you are white.”
The tool, called AIM, for “accountability incentives management,” takes case managers through an assessment process to look at the severity of the youth’s violation with respect to his or her likelihood to reoffend, mental health and family history, among other factors, and arrives at a list of set responses.
The responses include punishments, incentives and treatment options for youth that will vary by jurisdiction based on the services available there, Shoenberg explained.
But the initial criteria for evaluating the youth’s risk level and the severity of discipline the Department of Juvenile Services should use will be the same statewide, Solomon said.
“Every county is different the way they handle kids, but we want to make sure it’s as uniform as possible across the state,” Solomon said.
The Department of Juvenile Services began work on the program after a bill, sponsored by state Sens. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, and Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore, passed the state legislature last year and required the department to create a system of graduated responses and report its progress to select House and Senate committees by Dec. 1.
Shank sponsored a bill in 2011 to install a similar screening program in the adult system that has shown progress reducing re-incarceration rates in adults, he said. The program could produce good results in the juvenile system too, he added.
“The best practices are not always to lock somebody up and deprive them of their freedom, especially with the juvenile population where you have the opportunity for correction,” he said.
Possible sanctions laid out in the program could include placing a GPS tracker on the youth, increasing the frequency of supervision visits with the probation officer, and performing drug screenings, Shoenberg said. Incentives for good behavior could range from a curfew extension, to a decrease in the frequency of visits with the probation officer and a certificate of accomplishment sent home to families, she said. The guidelines have not yet been finalized in Maryland, she added.
A full pilot program will be put in place in January and Solomon said he expects the program to be fully ready by July.
In simple terms, these guidelines reflect what many parents already do at home to discipline their kids, Shank said. They encourage swift, precise and consistent action that’s fair and appropriate to the crime, he said.
“It’s using common sense. All parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all recognize that you treat different infractions differently,” he said. “It’s the most intuitive thing in the world because it’s how we handle life, and we’re trying to have a justice system that reflects common sense and our values.”
Rais Akbar, juvenile justice policy director with Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore-based children’s advocacy group, said he is cautiously optimistic about the program.
“We need to keep looking at it and see if it’s doing what we expect it do,” he said.